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British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
I have amazing friends who make shopping lists and stick to them. These people actually buy what they need for one meal, and leave it at that. As for me, I don’t go to the grocery store to pick up a few things. When I lived in Seattle I may have claimed that I was just stopping in to pick up a few things, but it was never true. I never walked away from Ballard Market without dropping at least $60, and I only lived eight blocks from the store. In a way, it’s just the way my brain works: I navigate by sight, I form new thoughts by saying them out loud, and I don’t know what I need until I’m looking at it.
But it’s also the way I grew up. The nearest decent grocery store was more than an hour’s drive from our house. (By “decent,” my dad meant cheap.) A trip to get groceries was never casual, but rather a major expedition. For me it entailed breathing exhaust fumes and mouse piss from the nest-bound heater as our Datsun creaked along the winding road from Deadwood to Eugene, Ore., and then squandering another hour following my Dad as he pushed a groaning cart through the bulk section of Waremart, fishing multiple crumpled lists from the breast pocket of his checked wool shirt and muttering to himself (probably recipes). Needless to say, my dad was the sort of person you dread getting stuck behind at the checkout: from looking at his final haul you might have thought he was preparing for the apocalypse.
Living in Seattle, I shopped the same way, but with a twist: I bought everything I could possibly imagine needing for the apocalypse, but two days later I would return to “pick up a few missing items,” and I’d walk out of the store an hour later. Luckily, our house was home to a steady stream of visitors, so food rarely went to waste. A typical dinner at Liberty House consisted of my husband, Rich, me, our roommate Cornelius, maybe four invited guests plus kids, perhaps a friend or relative the guests unexpectedly brought with them, an impromptu houseguest, and our neighbor James, who just happened to stop by. No wonder I was always buying food. (Happily, it should be noted. I love to cook for people.)
Everything is different now. In August we moved back to my hometown (technically, Deadwood is a town, but to the urban observer it might look more like a wooded area, or possibly the middle of nowhere). Not only do I have to remember how to cook for only two people, but I have to remember, period. I have to actually remember to buy butter, and cumin, and enough wine to last a week, and the dill I will need for the minestrone I plan on cooking in three days. There’s no going back to the store, unless I want to waste a day on the mission. (To be fair, the butter at least can be found at our local general store, but that’s a 50-minute round trip on a rutted road that is hell on our decrepit tires.)
Living in Deadwood is like being snowed in all the time. It takes a monumental effort to get anywhere, and so you end up making do with whatever you have on hand. Good thing I’m a born scrounger. So far I’ve committed all sorts of culinary sins, including substituting red wine for white, oregano for marjoram, and whipping cream for milk. I’ve made stock without bay leaves, eaten spaghetti without Parmesan cheese (those of you who know me know that I really suffered over that one), and even attempted shepherd’s pie without onion. (If you want a real kitchen challenge, try cooking without onions for an entire week.)
That said, I’ve been stocking up on dry goods and spices. And it’s not because I am some kind of effete foodie who has a conniption over spice substitutions: Snow has been hovering on the radar for days and in Deadwood being snowbound is no joke. Luckily, some of my favorite recipes can be made with pantry ingredients. Perhaps the simplest is a pot of black beans, which can be served with peasant bread and sour cream and eaten as soup.
Black bean soup
All you really need to make black bean soup is garlic, dried black beans, salt, cumin, some form of grease and, yes, an onion. Oh, and time. You need some time. Ideally, you will also have chilies, chipotle powder, cilantro or parsley, sour cream, cheese, epazote, bacon grease or chorizo, chicken stock … The list goes on, but you really can make a good pot of beans with the first six ingredients I listed. Cooking time varies depending on soaking time and the quality and freshness of the beans; it should be between 3 and 5 hours, but requires very little supervision. Just don’t add salt until the beans are already soft, because salting the beans early will slow down the cooking process and can ruin the experiment entirely. For maximum flavor, cook beans the day before, store in a cool place, and then reheat. Leftover black beans make a nutritious anchor for at least a dozen other simple dishes, including nachos, tacos, burritos, bisque, spread and gallo pinto.
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
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